The following is the eighth of nine position previews in advance of training camp.
The Bears secondary this season will feature two of the NFL’s top defensive backs as well as a pair of new starters.
Cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson both have played in the last two Pro Bowls. Last season Fuller led the Bears with three interceptions and 12 pass breakups and finished second with 82 tackles, while Jackson recorded 60 tackles and two interceptions—both of which came late in games and sealed wins over the Lions and Vikings.
In 2018, Fuller was named first-team All-Pro after tying for the NFL lead with seven interceptions and topping the league with 21 pass breakups. His 10 interceptions the past two seasons are tied for the most in the NFL with Falcons safety Damontae Kazee.
Jackson was also named first-team All-Pro in 2018 when he registered six interceptions and scored three defensive touchdowns. The 2017 fourth-round pick from Alabama already has generated five career defensive TDs, the fourth most in team history behind Charles Tillman (9), Mike Brown (7) and Lance Briggs (6).
Shortly after the 2019 season ended, the Bears signed Jackson to a four-year contract extension through 2024.
“It’s rare to find a player in this league with talent like Eddie’s,” general manager Ryan Pace said at the time. “He’s a rangy ball hawk with exceptional IQ, a great teammate and a natural leader. He is the anchor to the back end of our defense and we are fortunate to have him.”
Fuller and Jackson will be joined by two new starters in 2020 as the Bears seek replacements for a pair of departed veterans in cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The competition for the starting job and playing time at cornerback opposite Fuller is expected to include 2020 second-round pick Jaylon Johnson, returning third-year pro Kevin Toliver II, free-agent acquisition Artie Burns, former CFL star Tre Roberson, 2019 seventh-round pick Stephen Denmark, second-year pro Xavier Crawford, first-year pro Michael Joseph and 2020 fifth-round pick Kindle Vildor.
Johnson was a two-time first-team All-Pac 12 selection at Utah, where he played in 38 games with 29 starts the past three seasons and recorded 102 tackles, seven interceptions—two of which he returned for touchdowns—21 pass breakups and one sack. Last season Johnson earned second-team All-America honors, ranking third in the Pac-12 with a team-leading 11 pass breakups.
“Jaylon has just a really good combination of size, athleticism and awareness,” Pace said after the draft. “He’s that physical, press corner that uses his size really well. He uses his strength to his advantage, to re-route receivers. Jaylon also is a really intelligent player—plays the game with excellent instincts and awareness—you can see it in the way he plays.”
Toliver contributed on defense last year in his second season with the Bears, recording 12 tackles and two pass breakups—all in the final four games when he subbed in for Amukamara.
“[Toliver] has a great opportunity,” said defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend. “[Last year] he came in and showed what he was supposed to do. He showed that he is a starter in this league. Now, it’s his job to hold everybody off that comes to get it. One thing that we want is competition. Competition is going to bring out the best in everybody.”
Burns was selected by the Steelers with the 25th pick in the first round of the 2016 draft out of Miami. He appeared in 58 games with 32 starts over the past four seasons with Pittsburgh, recording 149 tackles, four interceptions and 27 pass breakups.
“When he was coming out [of college], you saw a long guy that could run,” Townsend said. “He would stick his nose in there in the run game. He’s physical. He has man-to-man ability, and that’s all we can look for.”
Roberson spent the past two seasons playing for the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders. In 2018, he helped the Stampeders win the Grey Cup championship, recording 54 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Last season he registered 41 tackles and seven interceptions—two of which he returned for touchdowns.
The competition for the starting job and playing time at safety opposite Jackson is expected to include free agent signee Tashaun Gipson Sr.; returning veterans Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson and Sherrick McManis; and veteran newcomers Jordan Lucas and Kentrell Brice.
Gipson is the most experienced safety on the roster, having appeared in 112 NFL games with 104 starts over eight seasons with the Browns (2012-15), Jaguars (2016-18) and Texans (2019). He has recorded 446 tackles, 23 interceptions—three of which he returned for touchdowns—47 pass breakups and 13 tackles-for-loss.
“He’s a talented guy, he’s a smart guy, he’s a great pro,” said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. “He’s played a lot and he’s got a ton of experience. He’s an athletic guy, he can play in deep parts of the field and he’s got good coverage skills and he can play down in the box, so from a versatility standpoint it’s going to be great to have him.”
A reliable backup and key special teams performer since joining the Bears as a fourth-round pick in 2016, Bush feels primed to contribute more on defense this season.
“I’ve been training hard all offseason,” Bush said. “I’m ready to go out and compete to be on the field so I can try to help the team the best way I can. I’m definitely ready to take another step this year.”
Bush has appeared in 58 games with eight starts in four seasons, recording 44 tackles, three pass breakups, one sack and one forced fumble. The 6-foot, 200-pounder started six games as a rookie in 2016. But his only two starts over the last three seasons came in the final two weeks of the 2018 campaign when he replaced an injured Jackson.
McManis and Houston-Carson played sparingly on defense last season, though McManis generated one of the most impressive plays of the season when he punched the ball out of Raiders receiver Trevor Davis’ hands inside the Bears’ 1-yard line in a loss to Oakland in London.
Lucas was chosen by the Dolphins in the sixth round of the 2016 draft out of Penn State. He appeared in 49 games with four starts over the past four seasons with the Dolphins (2016-17) and Chiefs (2018-19), registering 47 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups. Since entering the NFL, Lucas has played predominantly on special teams. Last season he appeared in 14 games, all as a reserve, with the Super Bowl-champion Chiefs.
Brice spent three seasons with the Packers from 2016-18, appearing in 36 games with 14 starts and recording 100 tackles, six pass breakups, one interception, one sack, one fumble recovery and one tackle-for-loss. Brice entered the NFL with Green Bay in 2016 as an undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech. He signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent last March but was waived by Tampa Bay as part of final cuts.
Buster Skrine returns as the Bears’ primary nickel back after a solid first year in Chicago. Having signed with the Bears last March after spending his first eight NFL seasons with the Browns and Jets, he compiled 47 tackles, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles while appearing in all 16 games.
Also back is 2019 sixth-round pick Duke Shelley, a reserve safety and nickel back who saw limited action in nine games as a rookie last season.